Oral History

Leo Melamed describes life as a refugee

Leo was seven years old when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Before the war, Leo's father was a mathematics teacher and member of the Bialystok City Council. Fearing arrest, Leo's father fled Bialystok for Vilna just before the German occupation. Leo and his mother eventually joined his father in Vilna. After the Soviets occupied Vilna, Leo's father obtained transit visas to Japan. The family left Vilna in December 1940, traveled across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Express, and arrived in Japan in January 1941. Leo's family obtained visas for the United States and immigrated in April 1941.


You got used to the transitory life that you were leading and that there was no certainty. And you get used to that and it's part of being a refugee. It's a mentality that sets in. Everything is temporary. You don't know where you're going, where you're going to be. You may be here for a long time, you may be here for a short time. So you didn't know, of course not. And we...we had no knowledge of the fact that we would be given permission to the United States or anywhere else. We didn't know if we were going to stay in, uh, Japan forever. We didn't know where else we would go. And we also didn't know is that war with the United States was about to break out. I mean none of that was known. So, you know, it's the life of a refugee. The unknown becomes part of your keeping, part of your life.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum
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